On this day in 1540, the Jesuit religious order was founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola. The order has been regarded by many as the principal agent in the Counter-Reformation, converting millions of people to Catholicism. Today, Jesuits are recognized for their dedication to educational, missionary, and charitable works.

Ignatius of Loyola

Ignatius de Loyola was a Spanish soldier-turned-priest. While recovering from a wound received in battle, Ignatius experienced a religious awakening and soon wrote the Spiritual Exercises, a guidebook to growing in union with God. On August 15, 1534, six young men (who had clearly ready his book) joined the priest on a retreat and joined him in vows of poverty, chastity, and a pilgrimage to Jerusalem – it was the unofficial start of the Jesuit movement.

The company of Jesus

Unfortunately, Ignatius and his followers were unable to make it to Jerusalem due to the ongoing Ottoman-Habsburg War (where it should be noted, over 1,000 Christian slaves were used as oarsmen). Forced into coming up with a “Plan B” (and fast), the men decided to offer their services to the pope for apostolic work. They were immediately put into service, working on the holy one’s most pressing needs.

For years, Ignatius worked on drawing up Constitutions for his proposed order, designated by him “The Company of Jesus”, or “Societas Jesu” in Latin. In 1540, Pope Paul III approved his outline and the Jesuit order was born.

Jesuits today

After Ignatius’s death in 1556, Jesuits set up ministries around the world. Often, the life of a Jesuit was highly risky – going into hostile foreign lands to convert non-believers is never an easy task. Still, the order has grown to over 24,000 members since its inception (especially since there were just seven).

The Jesuit order continues its missionary work to this day, with a worldwide network of schools educating over one million people, with 29 colleges and universities in the United States alone. St. Ignatius: Still spreading the good word from beyond the grave.